There are two letters in the alphabet that are sure to stir deep emotions and strong opinions. For some, genetic modification of crops represents corporate control of the food chain at the expense of human health, animal welfare and the environment. To others, GM offers a new deal on safe, sustainable food production in a world facing a growing population, climate change and dwindling natural resources – notably pollution-free water and arable land.
The latest addition to the debate comes from a group of five plant scientists who were asked to produce a report for the Council for Science and Technology, a panel of leading scientists who advise the Prime Minister. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they have come down heavily in favour of GM to improve crops – by introducing traits to improve yields and growth under harsh conditions or to add missing nutrients.
Some of these arguments have been aired extensively already. We are familiar, for instance, with the case in favour of GM “golden” rice, which is boosted with beta-carotene to provide a high proportion of an individual’s daily vitamin A requirement. Lack of vitamin A is a major cause of blindness in children in countries where rice is the only major food crop.
What emerges from this report are deep concerns about how Europe is lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of GM crops, which are grown in nearly 30 countries, most of them non-European. Land cultivated with modified crops is doubling every five years and now accounts for some 12 per cent of global arable land. But almost all of this acreage is grown outside the EU.
The widening gulf between Europe and the rest of the world in terms of GM has much to do with how the technology is regulated. The scientific advisers say that European rules add between £10m and £20m to the cost of developing a modified trait in a crop – which is prohibitively expensive for public sector research institutes and small- and medium-sized companies.
The regulations in the EU are restrictive because they assume that GM technology is an inherently risky process that therefore demands special treatment. However, it is fair to say that over the past 20 years there has not been a single, scientifically valid piece of evidence suggesting that GM is any more dangerous than conventionally bred food crops.
There is therefore a strong argument for an overhaul of the regulations. GM products could be treated on a case-by-case basis, and national bodies rather than the EU could be given responsibility for evaluating them, albeit under the auspices of a pan-European food body. This is how drugs are judged suitable for use within the NHS, and it is reasonable to assume that the same methodology could be introduced to control the introduction of new GM crops in the UK.
If Britain wants to take advantage of the benefits offered by GM technology, it should be allowed to do so and not be held to ransom by a prohibitive regulatory process in Europe that is clearly no longer fit for purpose. The time has come for Britain to decide for itself whether to forge ahead with GM crops, rather than be left in the sidings with the rest of the EU.